We could go to Blantyre twice a month to get away from Nsanje. Blantyre is the commercial center of Malawi. It has been over a month for me before going back. I intended to go back last week but I was persuaded to go this weekend as almost all the expats would be going to Blantyre and one expat knew I love the mountains and was entertaining the idea of going to Mulanje, the highest mountain in central Africa.
I began to look into the website of the Mountain Club of Malawi and at the same time I wrote Doug P. who visits Malawi frequently, about visiting Mulanje. I met Doug a few years ago when I inquired about the best way to visit the different tribes in southern Ethiopia on the website of Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum. He replied by asking if I would like to have a traveling companion as he would be in Addis Ababa and was also contemplating traveling to southern Ethiopia. He tried to reassure me that he was not stalking me and invited me to peruse his MSF blog. I hesitated and waited two days before looking at part of it and we did travel together for two weeks and have remained friends since.
Through him I was able to contact Gillian who is a member of the Mountain Club of Malawi and she happened to be going to Mulanje this weekend and so five of us: Gillian and Aiden from Ireland, Milan from Slovakia and Erin and I from the US started early on Saturday morning to Mulange. My fellow expat backed out the last moment preferring to stay in Blantyre.
Gillian had already arranged for two porters and a guide. Erin and I carried our own bags, we did not bring a lot, some food and warm clothes but Gillian who is a logistician for Mary’s Meals brought a whole lot of food and she also rented a sleeping bag for me. For this MSF assignment I was only allowed to carry 20 kg of baggage and so had left behind my hiking boots and sleeping bag. Aiden and Milan were aiming to climb to Sapitwa, the highest peak. Erin and I would like to climb to the highest point but time constraint did not allow us to do so.
Mulanje is 3002 meters, not as tall as other African mountains. There is a lack of vegetation as there seems to be a lot of forest fires, many have been deliberately set by poachers to drive out small animals for them to hunt. Despite that the ever changing hues and colors of the majestic mountain range left us in awe. At one stretch the new reddish brown leaves of the Brachystegia gave a splash of colors to the slope of the mountains. Parts of the trails were quite challenging, Mulanje is not such an easy mountain to climb. The sound of the crackling fire burning the bushes could be quite disconcerting and the charred landscapes make the mountains look bald. Closer to the peaks the mountains look rocky. We soon ran out of water and collected water from the cool mountain stream for drinking.
Almost at the end of a five hour climb we dipped into an ice-cold pool before climbing another twenty minutes to Thuchila Hut at 2000 meters. In the evening we went down a trail and sat on a slab of rock with our wine watching the sunset over the Plateau of the Elephant’s Head. The sun was a red fire ball slowly swallowed by dark grey clouds. In the distant slopes we could see fires being started at several places. The first star silently made its appearance. On second thought I think it was really the planet, Venus.
Gillian had prepared a delicious dinner at home and brought it up the mountain and heated it over a grate in the fire place. When I first met her I took an immediate liking of her. For a large jolly woman she was quite an amazing hiker. She has worked in Africa for several years now first in the Congo and now in Malawi. Aiden is a nurse working near Lake Malawi, Erin just arrived, a student in occupation therapy doing her internship in Blantyre, Milan, a friend of Aiden, is a computer technologist traveling internationally for Dell and had recently visited Penang, the island of my birth. He was quite a stand-up comedian and made us laugh the whole evening long. When he learned that both Erin and I are marathon runners and hikers he said to Gillian, “Next time when you invite us to come hiking please do not embarrass us with experienced hikers.”
We slept on the veranda, looking at the stars. In the early evening the Milky Way and the millions of brilliant stars dotting the sky, left us speechless. I could spot Orion the Hunter. This was the extent of my recognition of the constellations besides the Big and Little Dippers (Ursa Major and Minor) despite many a cold wintry night we spent with our astronomy professor in Wellesley on top of the roof of Sage Hall gazing at the sky and poring over the constellation chart. As we watched, a shooting star streaked across the sky.
In the morning we said good-bye to Aiden and Milan who would be spending a second night scaling Sapitwa while Erin, Gillian and I headed downhill stopping at another cold pool of the Likulezi River near the bottom to have a dip. It was a weekend of peace with the mountains and nature and great company. After a few weeks in quiet Nsanje, Blantyre seemed extremely busy and I was glad to leave it for the mountains.